After the Delhi verdict, some of the dust has settled. The awkwardly anointed ‘Honourable Fast Track Court’ is deemed to have done its job. There are continuing discussions on the changing nature of the city that make for unsafe public spaces and the general lack of safety for women. There is even a UN report that, while telling us a great deal of what we already know rape is about power, for example also falls back on stereotypes about poverty and violence.
In any case, there is satisfaction that we have gotten to the bottom of the problem: our public spaces are dangerous, and they are occupied by dangerous men who feel a sense of entitlement in the aggressive ways in which they behave towards women.
What is required, the refrain goes, is better policing, genuine freedom for women as they go about their everyday business, and a reformation of masculine identities. There is, however, still some dust swirling around. It rises from our doorsteps, obscuring the view of family life that is needed to fully address the current issue.
It is a common Indian habit to sweep household dust onto the streets, declaring our inner worlds free of all filth and leaving the world out there to its own devices. But the outside is made out of what’s within. And, it is our persistent refusal to genuinely question fundamental aspects of our private lives that lies at heart of the problem.
Let’s get one thing clear. Despite the horrific nature of the crime that took place on December 16, the most pervasive forms of sexual assault have the following characteristics: they take place within private spaces between people who know each other, often close kin. Our public places are unsafe but they are not really as unsafe as our private ones. And, the latter are unsafe because of an almost watertight contract written in the language of trust, honour, and tradition.
It is a contract between different members of the family the powerful and the powerless to maintain the sanctity of the ‘Indian family’ and traditions at all costs. It is also one that is shared between a number of other actors. Historians and sociologists describe it as the most unique aspect of Indian life, politicians sing its praises, movies and TV soaps extol its virtues, and Indians reprimand westerners with figures about the low divorce rate and the rock solid nature of the Indian family as compared to the western one.
Notwithstanding Amartya Sen’s contention about Indian capacities for reasoning and judgment, we take great pride in being un-argumentative when long standing traditions and structures become the site of individual misery. So, we know that women suffer the greatest amount of sexual violence within the family and yet such violence is also far less reported than its incidence. Why? Because the Station House Officer (SHO) at your local police station is at one with the ‘family elders’ that to register a FIR in the name of an offending uncle or grandparent would bring shame to the family. And, so the victim’s individual pain is sacrificed in the name of collective honour.
The frightening thing is that there is no proof that what we are witnessing is a rise in incidences of sexual assault. Rather, the case may be that rape is far more common, and has been far more common, than we care to acknowledge. We just refuse to acknowledge it; Indians are just not like that. And, we believe, the Indians who are like that are poor urban under-classes, and those cut adrift from the moorings of our cultural values.
Rapid economic change, the argument goes, produces shiftless youth who prowl the streets for sexual prey. It is neither the conditions produced by new economic circumstances that give birth to rapists, nor that the poor are more likely to commit such crimes.
These are, sadly, alibis for the refusal to take a good hard look at ourselves and our uncritical attitude towards our values and mores. In the modern period, we have become so deeply nationalistic that we have lost the ability for self-evaluation, substituting instead a brand of self-congratulation for self-criticism. We are argumentative about everything except our own selves.
This has made for a culture of hollow claims about the greatness of Indian civilization even as the norms of this civilisation take a horrendous toll, particularly on women. Rape is committed by men who are brought up to believe that if they do carry out the crime, it is the female victim who will suffer a loss of dignity and hence will be convinced by her kin to keep quiet about it. Rape is a contract between men and society, each supporting the other. It is not a problem external to our culture.
But, as in like everything, there is hope. Consider the manner in which the victim of the recent rape case in the Shakti Mills compound in Mumbai and her family have conducted themselves.
Firstly, there was the remarkable reaction from the young photojournalist that she did not view the attack upon her as the worst thing that could have happened to her and that she would overcome the trauma. For, it is classic masculinist thinking that suggests that a woman is forever ‘defiled’ by rape. Such thinking is prompted by masculine anxiety that men have not been able to ‘protect’ women under their care.
It shows no concern for what has happened to the woman. The Mumbai journalist, on the other hand, questions this perspective, refuting its masculinist undertones. Her family, too, has been exemplary in its response.
Its grief has translated into unquestioning support for the young woman. The family seeks justice not only for the young woman but also expresses concern for other women. It is a family genuinely concerned with the young woman’s welfare, rather than hollow notions of family honour and ‘outraged modesty’. It has asked that the media respect her privacy. These are the kinds of families we could choose to be. And, the questions the young woman herself raised about Indian culture’s attitude towards rape and women are the kinds of questions we need to also ask about ‘our’ culture.
The author is professor of sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth